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date: 04 August 2020

Glasse, Hannah

The Oxford Companion to Food

Alan Davidson

, Tom JaineTom Jaine

Glasse, Hannah (1708–70) 

probably the best-known English cookery writer of the 18th century, owed the fame which she and her principal work (The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, 1747) acquired to a strange concatenation of factors: in part, to chance; in great part, unscrupulous plagiarism; in almost no part, to innovations in the style and organization of recipes, for which she claimed credit; and, to a small but significant extent, to her marketing abilities.

As for chance, who could have foreseen that England’s greatest lexicographer, straying unwisely into a field with which he was unfamiliar and pontificating on the matter after the lapse of a quarter of a century, would have denied her authorship of her book? (It was Dr Johnson who thus erred.) And who would have supposed that the catchphrase ‘First catch your hare’ would have become firmly attached to her book, although the words do not occur in it?

The plagiarism was first revealed in this instance by Jennifer Stead (1983) in a pioneering essay which was the fruit of many months of patient research, and was later supplemented by further labours on the part of Priscilla Bain (1986). It emerged that 263 recipes (out of a total of 972) had been taken virtually word for word from one single earlier source, The Whole Duty of a Woman (1737, republished in 1740 as The Ladies Companion), while a further 90 or so were taken from other sources. It is commonly supposed that plagiarism in this field was near universal in the 18th century, and Jennifer Stead herself points out that the first Copyright Act of 1709 had no effect on cookery books and the like and that recipes were repeatedly copied by one author to another. However, this was not the universal pattern by any means. Some authors wrote in their own words, for example Richard Bradley (see english cookery books) and William verral; others did not pretend to be doing anything more than repeating recipes already published (for example the compilation of John Nott, 1726); and there is one shining example (Mrs Mary cole) of an author who did copy from other works but who acknowledged the source at the end of her recipes—sometimes going so far as to acknowledge two or three sources for a single recipe. Outright copying, accompanied by protestations that all the material was new and ‘never before published’, was not so widespread. Nor was Hannah Glasse the most culpable author, that dishonour being held by John Farley—and the female detective who exposed him, to the tune of 797 (out of 798) recipes stolen from other authors, was Fiona Lucraft (1992/3).

The innovations which Mrs Glasse claimed to be making in her book were mostly illusory. Some commentators have pointed to certain recipes in her book as examples of a new, vigorous, and direct style such as would enable the author to communicate effectively with the common herd of cooks and housewives; but most of these recipes turn out to be ones which had been composed a decade previously by the (presumably male) author of The Whole Duty of a Woman. Mrs Glasse professes to banish French extravagances and kitchen tricks, but then includes some recipes which exemplify the very faults she denounces.

Despite all this, there is something about her book which does represent a sort of hesitant advance in the direction of producing a popular cookery book which would be more accessible than earlier works. Certainly, some part of its success must have been due to a generally favourable reaction on the part of the public. But her vigorous marketing may have been just as important in this respect; it seems to have been a real innovation that she arranged for her book to be sold at Mrs Ashburn’s china-shop at the corner of Fleet-Ditch (in London).

Hannah Glasse’s life seems to have been largely an unhappy one; she was born illegitimate, married the wrong man, was declared bankrupt only seven years after her main book was published (and thus lost all control over it), and tragically lost six children in infancy out of 11 live births and one other (lost at sea) later on. But one thing stands out and that is a certain indomitable spirit which caused her to try a series of commercial ventures to prop up her financial position (one of these was her book, another was the production and marketing of patent medicine, and the last was setting up a ‘habit warehouse’ or clothes shop in fashionable Tavistock Street). Also, she wrote two later books, The Compleat Confectioner and The Servant’s Directory. The former, as Fiona Lucraft (1997–8) has demonstrated, showed her pursuing her practice of plagiarism. On this occasion the principal victim was Edward Lambert, whose modest book on the same subject, published in 1744, was purloined almost in its entirety.